"Hey, Paul," I greeted my customer as he climbed into the front seat of my cab. "What's shakin'?"
"Nothing but the bacon, brother," he replied. "Nothing but the bacon." He always answers that question the same way, but I never get tired of it.
"Dion Street, right?"
"Yup, you got it. Actually, you might as well drop me at Chuck's Mobil. I have to pick up some milk."
I don't know much about Paul's life, though I've driven him quite a few times over the last year. That's not unusual. Even customers whose company I enjoy and with whom I talk up a storm — which definitely include Paul — don't necessarily share a lot of biographical info. I just know him as a hard-working, strapping young man who lives in Winooski. Most of the time we've talked about baseball — one of my favorite subjects.
"Another beauty by Derrick Lowe last night," I said, jumping right into topic number one as we took off up the hill heading out of Burlington. "Didja catch it?"
"No, I was working. Did hear some of it on the radio, though."
"That sinker of his is unhittable this year. How do you throw a pitch like that? I mean, why don't you see more guys using it?"
"It's a tricky pitch to throw," he replied. He then curled the forefinger and middle finger of his right hand. "You grip it like a regular two-seamer curveball, but it's all in the delivery. You can't actually learn it; it's in the build of your shoulder and arm. A good sinker is God's gift — some guys can throw it and some just can't."
"Wow," I said. "I never heard that explanation before. How the heck do you know so much about baseball, anyway?"
"I played college ball in New Hampshire. Pitched with some serious heat." Paul smiled at the memory. "I was actually drafted by the Indians. They were going to send me to Single A. Then my girlfriend got pregnant, and I figured I better get a real job. That's when we moved to Winooski, about a year ago."
"So you're a dad now?"
"Sure am. Cindy's about four months old, and I don't regret a thing."
"Yeah, I was gonna ask. That must have been one tough decision, giving up baseball and all."
"You would think, but I knew I wouldn't make the majors. I had the fast ball going in the low nineties, so some club had to draft me. But I couldn't place it real well, and couldn't get the curve over for the life of me. The fast ball alone carried me in college ball, but with spotty control and no curve ball to speak of, I knew real hitters — professional ballplayers — they were gonna light me up."
"You know, Paul, that's amazingly clear thinking for a young man. When I was your age, I probably would have lied to myself to rationalize staying in baseball."
"Listen, my dad was a farmer, just like his father, and his father before. We had a farm in Eden — that's where I grew up. When I was 12, my dad called us all into the living room to tell us he was selling the place. There was no money milking cows anymore, he said, and we needed to get out while the getting was good. So, you see, I know what it's like to make the tough decision."
"Where'd you all go from Eden?"
"We moved to Bennington. My dad sold farm and garden equipment down there."
"What a change," I said. "From the heart of farm country to the flatlander-infested south." I caught myself and stopped. "I don't know what I'm saying. Jeez, I spent the first 20 years of my life in New York City, so who am I…"
Paul laughed. "No, I know what you mean. Southern Vermont's another world. Like, take Bennington College. That place is different."
"Were you ever on campus?"
"I was. My senior year in high school I delivered pizzas. There was one dorm where the girls would pick up their orders totally naked. I mean, flat-out nude!"
"That's different, all right. I guess Dominos had no problem recruiting delivery guys in that town."
"I guess maybe they didn't have any problem!" Paul replied, and both of us cracked up.
I signaled right and eased off the highway at Exit 15. A left, another left, and we pulled into Chuck's Mobil. My mechanic once told me that Chuck's sells more gas than any other station in the state. I believe it; day or night, the place is hopping. We cabbies favor Chuck's. It's fast and clean, and the friendly cashiers are always willing to break twenties for change.
"Well, Paul," I said as he handed me the fare, "I guess the milk's for little Cindy."
"Nope," he replied. "The milk is for Cindy's dad's coffee tomorrow morning. Cindy gets hers direct from her mom — she's got a good deal going."
So now I know something about Paul's life, I thought as I watched him enter the station store. It moves me, all these stories I hear — they're never mundane, and each one feels like a gift to me.
Life feels so empty sometimes, but the human stories we share can help fill the void.